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By Elisa Wood

March 27, 2013

Energy efficiency insiders have envied the telecommunications industry for years. After all, it produced the iPhone, Android and other products that American consumers can’t seem to live without.

The telecom industry achieved this level of innovation after it deregulated. The electricity industry deregulated too, but no killer product followed, no technology that rallies consumers and transforms markets.

“Where’s our version of the cell phone?” became a common lament among those in the energy efficiency business.  After all, if they could come up with an equivalent gadget – one that charmed us to manage our household energy flow as raptly as we manage email, texts and cat photos on cell phones – imagine the energy savings we could achieve.

It turns out the energy industry may have found its cell phone, and it is…well, the cell phone.

Smart phone users can now manage their energy through a proliferation of apps that do everything from help us find energy rebates to reveal the workings of multi-state electricity grids. Many of the apps spring from the understanding that we are visual creatures: if we see our energy consumption rise and fall on a screen, as it happens, then we’re more apt to shut off the lights when we leave a room.

The planet now has about as many cell phones as it does people. That’s right, six billion. And a glance around any coffee shop, subway stop or park reveals that we like to stare at our cell phones. So it’s the logical gadget to use for engaging people in energy management.

Ashley Banks, a 26-year-old New Yorker, tried out one of these new apps last summer and liked it. Banks was able to control her window air conditioner remotely using her cell phone. She used the app and a special kind of portable outlet, called a modlet, while participating in the CoolNYC pilot program offered by Con Edison and ThinkEco. 

If Banks forgot to turn off her AC before leaving for work, she could do so on route using her cell.  She could also remotely set the AC unit to a certain temperature and monitor how much energy the unit used and what it cost her.

Banks, who works in cultural non-profit marketing, learned about the program through some friends.  She says she’s not particularly tech inclined, but decided to give it a try. “The cell phone was definitely part of the attraction. I liked the idea of connecting remotely,” she said.

And she wasn’t alone in finding appeal in energy management via cell phone. The CoolNYC participants had the option to use their personal computers – and forego the cell phone app. But they clearly liked the idea of using their smart phones. Between 60 to 70 percent of the program participants downloaded the app, according to ThinkEco.

Window AC units can be big energy wasters. New York City has more than six million of them, and many run when no one is home. The app makes clear the consequence, showing the apartment dweller the amount of energy the unit is using at any moment and what it’s costing. Most of the CoolNYC participants had at least two AC units, so could even compare performance unit-to-unit.

“They realized that they had two air conditioners that looked the same, but one was a greater power hog than the other. People never realize that until they are shown,” said Mei Shibata, ThinkEco’s chief strategy officer.

It was the app’s whiz-bang and convenience that first attracted participants. Some used it to turn down their AC before arriving home for a blast of cool air upon entering from the sweltering sidewalk. Others monitored temperatures in their homes while they were at work to make sure the climate was right for their pets. Whatever they did, the point was that they started to pay attention to their energy use, something most of us tend to ignore.

But it turns out the cell phone is doing even more than helping consumers manage energy use for their appliances. It’s also helping them buy the right appliance in the first place, the most energy efficient one. More on that next week in part II of “Energy efficiency finds its cell phone.”

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work can be found at RealEnergyWriters.com.

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